50 Years Ago This Week – Who’s Afraid of the Production Code?

A milestone on the road to the Seventies Film, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, an adaptation of Edward Albee’s Tony Award winning play starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, was released fifty years ago.  Successfully bringing the play to the screen – with the explicit approval of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) – marked the beginning of the end for Hollywood’s draconian but eroding self-censorship system, overseen for over thirty years by its Production Code Authority (PCA). The code – with its requirement that good always triumph over evil, its essential insistence on truth, justice and the American Way, and its long list of taboo subjects – precluded the nuanced explorations of moral ambiguity that would become the hallmark of the New Hollywood. 

Virginia Wolf was an ideal vehicle to breach the dykes of censorship.  A prestige production (as evidenced by its Tony and numerous other accolades), it was unambiguously an important work of art, but it was also controversial, and “adult”—in the best sense of the word. Put forward by the drama committee for the Pulitzer Prize, the blue-nosed board ultimately balked at honoring a play that featured raw language and overt references to sexuality—and so there was no Pulitzer Prize for drama awarded in 1963. 

Warner Brothers took on the project, but the finished product was ruled “unacceptable” by PCA chief Gordon Shurlock, raising the possibility that the film might never reach theaters, at least in America.  But, as they say in the movies, fate intervened.  In May 1966 the studios lured Jack Valenti from the Johnson White House to become the head of the MPAA.  (Hollywood loved to hire Washington power-brokers; Will Hays, he of the legendary Hays Censorship Code, had been chairman of the Republican National Committee.)  Valenti was indeed a Washington insider, but he was also an outspoken critic of the Production Code.  At Warner Brothers urging, he screened the film, and negotiated line by line trims of dialogue (“screw you” would be dropped, “son-of-a-bitch” stayed) that led to a successful appeal of the PCA ruling.

“The best American play of the last decade and a violently candid one, has been brought to the screen without pussyfooting,” Stanley Kauffmann declared in his New York Times review. “This in itself makes it a notable event in our film history,” he added.  “And in its forthright dealing with the play, this becomes one of the most scathingly honest American films ever made.”  It was, in other words, exactly the kind of movie that New Hollywood filmmakers aspired to produce.

Sympathetic to these goals, Valenti, who did not fancy himself a censor, sought to revise Hollywood’s system of self-regulation in a way that allowed for the responsible expression of challenging and sophisticated material on the big screen, while still mediating the presentation of potentially objectionable content.  This would be formalized in 1968 with the introduction of the industry rating system that is largely intact today, which is attentive to sex, violence, and language.  More important, if less obvious, is that the end of censorship also took the studios largely out of the business of imposing a moral vision on its filmmakers or placing limits on the types of stories that could be told.

The talent associated with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf was also suggestive of the just-around-the-corner New Hollywood.  It was the debut effort of director Mike Nichols, who would follow up with The Graduate, Catch-22, and Carnal Knowledge, and was shot by Haskell Wexler, soon to direct his own masterpiece Medium Cool. Production designer Richard Sylbert would subsequently contribute to The Graduate, Rosemary’s Baby, Fat City, Chinatown, and Shampoo.  Best Supporting Actress winner Sandy Dennis took the leading role in Robert Altman’s That Cold Day in the Park, and George Segal would emerge as one of the notable actors of the New Hollywood: Loving, Born to Win, Blume in Love, and California Split show him at the top of his game.  But at the center of Virginia Woolf, of course, are two already-established legends, Taylor and Burton, who show they can take on a Bergmanesque drama of raw, intense interpersonal relationships (with bracing close-ups to match), and run with it.     

Woolf 1

The Start of a Pleasant Evening?


Woolf 2

Tensions Rise . . .


Woolf 3

And Boil Over


Woolf 4



Woolf 5



Woolf 6